To worship or not to worship

13th June 1997 at 01:00
I sat on the platform at the Centenary Conference of the National Association of Head Teachers in Scarborough, chairing our debate on the motion which called upon the Government "to revise the law on collective worship in schools, and to enter into consultations with the profession, governing bodies and faith communities about an acceptable alternative".

And as I sat, I could not help reflecting that during the past two years - whilst I have been chairing sessions of the General Synod of the Church of England, I had never been faced with archbishops, bishops, priests or laity who were required by law to conduct an act of collective worship on a daily basis, five days a week. Yet this is what headteachers are required to do with groups of between 10 and 2,000 children or young people.

What sort of law is this? What possible credibility can any law have, if, with the best will in the world, vast numbers of headteachers find it impossible to keep?

Two elements in particular make for almost insuperable difficulties: * The logistics of many school buildings mean that bringing the whole school together into one place every day to worship may be impossible. Often, heads need to work out complicated extra time-tables for year groups, key stage groups, tutor groups and so on, in order to keep the law.

* An act of mainly Christian worship is stipulated by law, when in some schools 90 per cent or more of the pupils practise a different faith.

What's more, headteachers in this country come in all creeds and colours, believers and non-believers. Only in church schools is there a requirement that the head should be a practising Christian.

None of these headteachers would question the need to have religious education taught in their schools, thus enabling all their pupils - from five to 16-year-olds, and indeed on into the sixth form - to develop an understanding of the moral and spiritual values which underpin any civilised society.

Such religious education, at its best: * explains "worship" in generic terms across many faiths; * gives historic details of the growth of Christianity in the UK; * takes the Christian faith and unpacks its messages and hopes; * describes the customs and practices of other major world religions.

Schools follow the religious syllabus agreed by their local Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education and are thus educating and enabling children and young people to make their own informed choices in adult life - to worship or not to worship.

When this puzzling new legislation appeared as part of the Education Reform Act 1988, I was asked by one very experienced headteacher colleague: "Liz, what is worship? How will I ensure that they are all worshipping ?" The dictionary informs us that to worship is - to pay divine honours to, to venerate with religious rites, to idolise. I would challenge any priest or minister really to know if those present in their churches or chapels, even on one day per week, are worshipping.

Surely it is time to redraft this part of the Education Reform Act to enable heads to provide "quality opportunities", as it were, for their pupils to experience worshipful situations. This should not, however, be a daily grind of hymn, prayer, reading and notices, which may get the school through an Office for Standards in Education inspection but will contribute little to the pupils' spiritual enrichment.

It is true that schools are now held by many to be the most "value-led" institutions in our communities. They do need regularly to gather their pupils together to endorse collectively the school's aim and ethos. They are highly conscious of their responsibility to meet the needs of the whole child - social, academic, physical, emotional as well as spiritual.

But the reality is that a daily act of collective worship is often disproportionately time-consuming. Getting to the designated place and returning to the classroom means that 10 minutes of "worship" can consume more than 30 minutes during the school day: more than 21Z2 hours a week. Schools need this time for one-to-one contact with pupils.

Please, Secretary of State, make sense of this situation in your first Education Act.

As a committed practising Christian, I have searched around for "good practice", to find places where a meaningful daily act of collective worship is a reality. I found them: they do exist. They are called convents and monasteries. I thank God for their existence - but I do recognise the difference between them and a school.

Liz Paver is president of the National Association of Head Teachers

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